For most of the world 2020 was not the most positive of years, and 2021 has been pretty tough so far for so many. However, it did start on a note of promise with the first-ever Covid-19 vaccine being given to a non-trial patient in the UK right at the end of the old year.
As I write, some 18 million vaccines have been administered in our country – a remarkable achievement which is owed not only to outstanding scientific expertise and persistence, but also to tens of thousands of planners, logisticians and health workers on the ground.
Amongst their ranks is a small army of volunteers, of which I have so far been a very tiny part. If you have the time and are needed, I really do recommend offering to do this. The work is quite physically demanding for those of us who have not been using lockdown wisely as it involves six to eight hour shifts when you are more or less constantly on your feet, but it is enormously positive – a real antidote to the isolation, anxiety and feeling of helplessness that have haunted so many in recent months.
Getting into the system can be a bit of a challenge – there are two national programmes, the St John’s Ambulance and the Royal Voluntary Service. However, one has an IT system that is difficult to navigate and is really set up for health professionals who wish to volunteer, for example in administering the vaccine, and therefore needs a much more rigorous registration process; while the other seemed to have no opportunities in my area appear on its app in spite of regular checking. The third option, a county-based system, was much easier to negotiate, and I believe many counties run their own, so you just need to search on-line for yours (note the Derbyshire scheme has currently paused recruitment).
What does a volunteer do? That depends on the nature of the site. Personally, I’ve so far worked at two sites, one a modern hospital in a small town, the other a Victorian building (in fact a redundant hospital) in an even smaller town. At the first of these, I was in a team of four volunteers, and we took it in turns to carry out various duties, all associated with escorting patients around the building. We welcomed them at the entrance, made sure they joined the correct queue, and that they left by the designated exit. And all the time, we were chatting to them, making sure that anyone who looked anxious was put at ease or given the chance to talk to a health worker. After the vaccination, we chatted some more to anyone who felt so inclined.
Given the stories that have been so regularly in the media, I was more shocked than I should have been to find myself talking to people who had simply had no human company for months. One lady told me, ‘I know I will die if I catch this virus.’ Her days had been spent in fear, like a prisoner living with a death sentence as a real possibility. While waving patients goodbye at the exit, and wishing them luck, some shared their joy and hopes, their plans to see loved ones and meet friends again as soon as rules allowed. It sounds trite I know, but it really did feel like a privilege to be there with them at such a moment.
At the second site, I was working outdoors the whole time, directing drivers around the many small car parks, and making sure patients found the right entrance – and the right car park on departure! Again, there was lots of chatting while walking them around the site, and a sharing of relief with people as they left. Patients at both sites were greatly impressed by the arrangements, and there were comments such as ‘Marvellous organisation’, ‘Fantastic experience’, and of course many very genuine ‘thank you’s. One or two even arrived with biscuits for the staff! All the professionals involved in organising and delivering this vaccine roll-out should be so proud of themselves and their teamwork, and all of us should be enormously grateful to them.
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For me, volunteering has been a chance to be part of a team again in ‘real life’ instead of on Zoom, and to be a tiny cog in a really impressive machine. It was also such a positive experience after all the recent gloom, which will take time to dispel.
The UK government has not in general covered itself in glory in its reaction to the pandemic: the first lockdown too slow to arrive and too fast in its ending – with ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and chaotic, confused ‘rules’ sowing the seeds of the next lockdowns; plumbing the depths of ‘crony-ism’ with enormous sums wasted on ineffective PPE and a Track and Trace that didn’t until local government was allowed to address some of the failings of Serco et al.
However, credit should also be given where it is due, or criticism becomes invidious. The government invested in science heavily and early on, and spread its bets by securing options on a wide range of vaccines in development before many other administrations were even off the starting blocks. Either it was wise itself, or it enabled and encouraged its advisors to be so. As a result, the sheer happiness and hope I’ve been witnessing recently has been made possible. It is a truism that ‘none are safe until all are safe’, and in this case, ‘all’ means the world. It will be wonderful if the UK government can now inspire others by ensuring that our good fortune in having access to life-saving vaccines can soon be shared with the developing world.